Union captain Alejandro Bedoya eager for Sunday opener at Vancouver

Union captain Alejandro Bedoya eager for Sunday opener at Vancouver

CHESTER, Pa. -- When Alejandro Bedoya came to Philadelphia last summer, it was a landmark moment in the Union’s relatively short history. 

But as with any player who arrives from Europe midway through the MLS season, there were some difficulties for Bedoya as he got settled with a new club and a new league. 

Now though, as the U.S. national team stalwart prepares to enter his first full MLS season as the team’s unquestioned leader and captain, there’s nothing holding him back.

“It’s starting to feel finally like home,” Bedoya said. “Philly’s starting to feel like a true home.” 

Bedoya certainly showcased some of his considerable skills last season after arriving from France’s FC Nantes, starting the final 10 games of the season and scoring one of the best goals of Philly’s 2016 season.

But the team never gained much traction with him in the midfield, going winless in their final eight games and getting bounced from the playoffs in the first round by eventual MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC.

For Bedoya, going through an offseason that allowed him and his family to get settled in Philadelphia and a full preseason that allowed him to show his personality to his new teammates was critical.

“I’m taking a more proactive approach,” Bedoya said. “Guys have been able to see what I’m all about. I hope I can bring my experience and my characteristics to make the team better. 

“It’s a good group of guys, to be honest. I’m really excited.”

Union head coach Jim Curtin announced Wednesday that Bedoya would wear the captain’s armband for the team’s 2017 opener at the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday -- a role he earned by taking on a leadership role during the past month in preseason camp in Florida.

Brian Carroll and Maurice Edu have been the team’s captain for much of the past two seasons but Edu is still recovering from an injury that kept him out of the entire 2016 campaign and the aging Carroll may struggle to find regular minutes.

For now, at least, this team belongs to Bedoya.

“He’s been a great leader all preseason,” Curtin said. “He’s been a player that’s played at the highest level internationally for the national team, for big clubs in Europe. He’s always been a really strong contributor. Now, the challenge he’s really stepped up to meet is to become more of the guy that everyone looks to for leadership. He’s embraced that role.”

Curtin hasn’t said exactly where Bedoya will play, but most signs indicate that he’ll be deployed as an attacking midfielder in front of string-pulling playmaker Haris Medunjanin -- a new addition to the club that, like Bedoya, boasts experience at both the World Cup and in Europe.

It’s a combination that the Union coach is very high on leading into the opener.

“I think it’s clear Ale and Haris have a real understanding for each other, a real respect for each other,” Curtin said. “They’re internationals that have played at the highest level at big clubs. Their experience speaks for itself. 

“They’re our leaders. They’re the guys who have been through the wars. This will be a tough game on the road in a hostile environment. The easiest way to put it is they’re two of our best players. And you always need your best players on the same page.”

Bedoya roomed with Medunjanin during the preseason, which helped the two get on the same page. Now, they’re ready to show it off in 2017 and control the middle of the field together for a team gunning to return to the postseason -- and win the club’s first-ever playoff game once they get there.

“I love playing with Haris,” Bedoya said. “Soccer sees soccer. We understand each other very well right away. He had a great experience in Europe. He has a great left foot, great vision, great passing range. We’re definitely comfortable finding each other.”

As for being the captain, Bedoya isn’t about to step on the toes of Carroll, the team’s longest-tenured player, or Edu, one of his best friends, who he’s eager to finally play with for the first time.

But he’s certainly ready to wear the armband whenever called upon and become a leader of a team he only got to know briefly last year.

“I like to lead by example,” Bedoya said. “And guys know they can feed off my energy.”

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

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Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

A trio of Union players are being called upon for international duty.

Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and forward CJ Sapong have been named to the final U.S. Men's National Team roster for an upcoming international friendly against Portugal on Nov. 14 in Leiria, Portugal. 

Bedoya has earned 65 international caps for the USMNT including four World Cup appearances. Conversely, Sapong has earned just two caps, both in friendlies. However, Sapong recorded 16 goals this season, setting a career-high and a new franchise record. His 16 goals were tops among American players in MLS, one more that USMNT mainstay Jozy Altidore.

Union midfielder Warren Creavalle has also been called up by Guyana in their friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Creavalle has earned three international caps. He played in 13 matches for his club team, his second most in a season since joining the Union in 2015.

Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

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Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

CHESTER, Pa. — Earnie Stewart has a lot of qualities you’d want in a sports executive.

He’s patient. He’s even-keeled. He’s endlessly positive. He always has a plan in mind, and he’s always thinking about the future.

If the Union sporting director has a fault, it may be that he doesn’t seem to have a great read on Philly sports fans, many of whom might have, let’s call it, different personality traits than him. But if Union supporters are feeling negative and impatient these days, it’s certainly for good reason.

The franchise has been floundering near the bottom of MLS since its inaugural season in 2010, while watching teams that entered the league around the same time (Toronto, Seattle, Portland) soar past it and more recent expansion clubs (New York City FC, Atlanta, Orlando) open their wallets for MVP-caliber players while drawing big crowds.

Stewart, meanwhile, has admitted the focus in Philly has been on building a foundation and committing to the franchise’s infrastructure through a new practice facility, a minor-league affiliate and an ever-improving youth academy. 

But even if the Union executes flawlessly in all of those aspects, it doesn’t necessarily give the team a competitive advantage over other MLS clubs, most of whom have the same things in place. Similarly, the rebuilding process won’t bear fruit in the way it does for teams in other leagues like the Sixers and Astros since the MLS draft isn’t a reliable mechanism to acquire foundational pieces.

Soon, the club’s youth academy, fueled by a partnership with Bethlehem Steel FC (where the top players can bypass college and get professional minutes) could very well lead to exciting things. But for a team that stresses development, developing young players has never been a particular strong suit — the regression of Keegan Rosenberry (along with the injuries to fellow 2016 standout rookies Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers) serving as the latest, most glaring example.

Besides, focusing on development and infrastructure shouldn’t take away from building a team that can make the playoffs, which the Union failed to do in 2017 for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history. Philly fans want a winner today, and seeing an expansion team like Atlanta roll into the playoffs behind star South American imports and record crowds has only made their frustration more pronounced.

Which brings us to Stewart’s end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

In his address with reporters, Stewart dove into many of the roster changes the team has made as it declined the options of several players. Still, it didn’t feel like very much will change at all.

For starters, he announced that Jim Curtin will be retained as head coach despite his 38-50-31 overall record. Second, he said that the team’s search for a new attacking midfielder would start in its “own backyard” and didn’t rule out bringing back Ilsinho, possibly in a reserve role, rather than wipe the slate clean after the 2016 season showed it’s the biggest position of need. And third, he hedged when asked if ownership would spend more money to keep up with other teams.

“We have those conversations and I have to say that our ownership group with [majority owner Jay Sugarman] leading that has been good,” Stewart said. “But we’ve also chosen a path that we have as a club, that we started at least since I’ve been here two years ago. That’s our pathway. That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be, and the most important part is we’ve got to come to grips with that.

“Can you spend like the Torontos? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different way, and I think we’ve found that way. When you look around at what we have at the club and the facilities we have, we’re still building because a lot of times it’s only seen in player spending. But this is such a young club that there’s so much that needs to be built. You can bring in the best player you want but if you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s not going to work.”

The thing about this is no one is even asking them to spend like Toronto FC, who dishes out over $18 million a year to three star players: Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Clearly, it’s a strategy that works, as Toronto posted the best record in league history this season after advancing to the MLS Cup final a year ago. But at this point, Union fans would settle for bringing in just one difference-maker in the $2 million range (plus a transfer fee) — the kind of salary that lured star playmakers Miguel Almiron (Atlanta), Diego Valeri (Portland), Romain Allesandrini (LA Galaxy) and Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle) to MLS. 

Imagine one of those players behind striker CJ Sapong and in front of central midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The Union could easily make the playoffs. Throw in a veteran defender and a quality winger and you could make the case they’re a title contender.

That’s the thing about MLS. There’s a lot talk about building a foundation and grooming young players but, in the end, your success boils down to how much you spend and whether or not you acquire the right players. 

Teams can literally scout anywhere in the world and the Union have had success mixing young Americans in with talented midfielders from France, Argentina and Bosnia, where Medunjanin — an excellent acquisition — hails. But Stewart has also had a lot of misses with his signings as Roland Alberg, Jay Simpson, Giliano Wijnaldum and others failed to make the kind of impact the club needed.

Stewart didn’t really accept much blame for any of those guys, saying Alberg actually had a “very good role” with the Union and that fellow Dutchman Wijnaldum was a “very talented kid” who simply struggled to adapt to a new country. He also didn’t appear to think the 2017 season was a particularly poor one, pointing to the fact that Union finished with same point total, with a better goal differential, as in 2016. Nor did he express any alarm over young players' development, noting that “every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday.”

On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with being this positive and Stewart very may well may have big things in store this offseason. But after hearing so much about progress for eight years without ever seeing very much of it, it’s easy to understand why Union fans might not share in his optimism.